Masuma Ahuja can happily remember what she wore on her first day of school in the United States: black jeans and a gray and orange T-shirt.
It was the early 2000s and her family had just moved from India to Pittsburgh. She remembers a boy in her middle school who the first day asked her what she was wearing.
“He was like, ‘Oh, I did not know you were wearing [Western] clothes in India, “she says.” He believed that India was very much a place where there were snake charmers and elephants on the street. “
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India, depicted by her classmate, was drawn from history books and fantasy – but the reality was that Ahuja grew up in more affluent neighborhoods in Mumbai and Bangalore. These misconceptions about the lives of those people in different places – especially women and girls – stuck with her as she continued to become a journalist at Washington Post and CNN.
And that raised a question – what is life really as for girls around the world?
She goes out of her way to answer that in her new book, Girlhood: Teenagers around the world in their own voices. Released in February, it takes snapshots of everyday life from 30 girls across the globe in the form of diary entries.
There’s Claudie, a 13-year-old surfer from Pango Village in Vanuatu who dreams of becoming a lawyer; Halima, a 17-year-old from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, who listens to Celine Dion and helps her father peel potatoes for his pre-school job; Sattigul, a 16-year-old from a family of nomadic shepherds in western Mongolia, loves his pet eagle and will one day be an English translator.
NPR talks to Ahuja about the inspiration and process behind capturing the girls’ ordinary lives: their hopes, dreams, anxieties and frustrations.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to focus on the girls’ “ordinary” lives?
I jumped around in South Asia [reporting] and I realized very quickly that the ways in which [Western media] told stories about girls generally fell into some fixed buckets: sexualization, victimization, gender-based violence, which are really important stories to tell.
On the other side of it, we had a lot of stories about unusual girls fighting back, girls like Malala [Yousafzai]Greta [Thunberg]Emma Gonzalez [who rose to the spotlight after surviving the Parkland shooting and standing up against gun violence]. But the big gap is where the lives of most ordinary girls exist. And there was just no representation of it. So that’s part of the reason I would do this.
Why did you decide to use diary entries as a format?
Diary entries felt like a very natural way to get girls to tell their own stories and have ownership of how their lives and stories are represented.
Can you tell an example of a girl’s ordinary life that you highlight in the book? What makes that girl’s story so special?
Chen Xi from Singapore writes about staying up late to finish her homework, her school and her teachers, her love of poetry and books, and her hopes of studying English literature in college. Her story is unique to her – shaped by her circumstances, her community, her culture and her interests – but it is also deeply relatable, whether you have lived in Singapore or taken the classes she did in school.
What’s universally true about girls from reporting your book?
Despite the differences in circumstances, cultures, and identities between the girls in this book, the daily structure of their lives often looked like: the types of conversations they had with friends and family; the things they worried about; their great hopes and dreams for the future. And while girls’ relationships vary, girls everywhere are growing up in a world that is not fair.
How did you get in touch with the girls and decide who would be in the book?
Some of the girls I [found] through NGOs [nonprofit organizations]. I would never approach a girl like sending her a direct message on Instagram and saying “Hey, do you want to do this?” I wanted to review someone they trusted or knew. My only real requirement to look for girls was that I wanted to include people who felt good about sharing their lives and wanted to share their lives.
What instruction or guidance did you give to the diary entries?
Everyone was given the same instructions in their own language, which was: “Here are some things you can write about. You are also welcome to ignore all my instructions and write about something completely different,” which often happens. And then I would ask more questions about things I wanted to know more about.
But it really varied girl to girl. The girl in Baghdad – Ruqaya – she texted me in the evening and told me what was going on with her so her diary entries were sent to me in real time. But on the other hand, Shanai from New Jersey pulled out his journal and was like, “Hey, I want to take pictures of three records that I’m thinking of exploring. What sounds good to you?” We talked through what she wanted to include, what she felt good about, and she just sent me photos of her diary.
Were there any stories that particularly stood out to you or resonated with you in a special way?
The cheesy response is that I feel like I relate to all the girls somehow and that was really surprising. I have moved many times in my life – I am an immigrant many times – and I live on a different continent than my family at the moment.
I think a lot back to the girls who wrote about home length and moved away from their families right now. I remember when we went through final edits that the two girls whose posts really resonated with me at the time were Ruoxiao from China who is studying in the UK and Varvara from Russia who wrote about her desire to leave home in Saransk for Moscow.
They both talked about the very specific longing to go to a new place and live a bigger life and think that big, exciting things are happening elsewhere. There’s so much for me to do and I just can not wait for it.
What do you hope readers take away from Pigedom?
I hope every reader finds themselves reflected in unexpected corners of their stories. And I hope that every girl who picks up the book recognizes that her voice is important and belongs in the pages of a book.